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Spiritual Meditations ( 7 March 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Is Religion Undesirable For Humanity?



By Asghar Ali Engineer

March 2013

I was invited to Jaipur literary festival which is quite an event as many well known writers and intellectuals participate in it and gives rise to many controversies which makes it extremely important. As usual many controversies took place this year too. I met there the noted Urdu poet Javed Akhtar and well known actor Shabana Azmi. They are old friends and Javed’s father Jan Nisar Akhtar and Shabana Azmi’s father Kaifi sahib were also close friends of mine.

Javed Akhtar was to speak on Ghazali and I was to speak on Shari’ah law and women’s rights. I invited Javed to come to my session but unfortunately both were to take place simultaneously and we could not attend each others’ session. Anyway he went to yet another session which was on Buddhism as that was the main theme of the festival this year. Next day I saw in the press that Javed Akhtar had a controversy with sociologist from Hyderabad Prof. Kancha Ilaiah and denounced religion like living in caves and what difference it makes whether you live in this or that cave.

We met again next day and I referred to the controversy he had with Prof. Kancha Ilaiah. He vigorously defended himself and said indeed religion is like a cave wherein you have neither light nor fresh air. It is all the same whether you live in Buddhist cave or an Islamic cave. All religions are the same. He also said that all religions are anti-rational and anti women and suppress women’s rights. Thereupon former Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia Mr. Syed Shahid Mahdi intervened and said don’t you think there are some positive points in religion?

Javed thereupon said that according to the Qur’an there are good things in liquor and also bad things and yet it bans it. They even if there are some good things in religion there are also bad things and so why not ban it like liquor is banned by Qur’an.? I told Javed that your contention that religion is anti-rational and against women’s rights is very lopsided view.

Firstly to describe religion as a cave itself is quite questionable. Then all political ideologies including Marxism are also like caves. In fact, anything or frame-work can be called a cave as it requires remaining within that ideology and not question it. Secondly may be initially one lives in cave but soon develops better structures and adds windows and doors to it. Human beings did live in caves initially but soon constructed houses with doors and windows.

Religion may have been primitive to begin with but did develop with time and as human beings deeply reflected and developed evolved better and more developed thoughts on religion and philosophy. Different Prophets brought different Shari’ah laws at different times and yet had same core values and hence Qur’an teaches to respect all prophets and religions.

It is also not true that all religions suppress women’s rights. This itself is unscientific view. In fact theology does not develop independent of social structures and culture. Nothing develops in vacuum. Even it is un-Marxist view. Though core values are same every religion develops in a given social and cultural structure. We should also remember that theologies are not ‘purely divine’ as claimed by many religious priests.

Theology is often product of human mind or human approach to divine words and thus is deeply influenced by sociological and cultural factors. Thus theology of any religion cannot be understood without taking into account the social structures of the time. A Marxist has to search for its roots in social and cultural structures instead of denouncing it and try to understand its contents in the light of these structures.     

 It is not correct to say that all religions suppress women’s rights as religions are anti-women. This is highly problematic view. What laws have been framed by various theologians have to be understood in the light of patriarchal structure and patriarchal culture of the then society. Unfortunately Javed Akhtar could not attend my session wherein I had shown (as I have shown in my writings on women’s rights) Qur’an unambiguously accords equal status to women.

 However, when theologians interpret the Qur’anic verses though they are quite unambiguous in according equality to women, under the influence of patriarchal structures, make them quite inferior to men and given them lesser status. I told Javed Akhtar that as a Marxist he must understand this and instead of denouncing Islam or Qur’an must work for going beyond patriarchal interpretations and giving absolute equality to both the sexes.

 Before we proceed further I wish to stress that with few honourable exceptions Indian Marxists failed to take Indian culture and society seriously and tried to copy Marx mechanically without understanding his European context in which he was speaking. Was Marx really anti-religious and if so what it means to be anti-religion?

 I recall here an interesting dialogue I had with a Latin American liberation theologian Fr. Dussel Dorf when both of us were attending a seminar on religion in Sri Lanka in late eighties. During the discussion I happen to mention that Marx was an atheist and anti-religion. Fr. Dussel Dorf disagreed with me and said Marx was very religious person at least in a Christian sense.

 He said Bible strongly sympathises with the poor and the weaker sections of society and states that God is with them and even states that “the meek shall inherit the earth. Did Marx have sympathy with the poor and weak on this earth and actively worked to liberate them from the curse of poverty and if so, was he not religious? He passionately worked for empowering the poor and give them dignity as desired by God through Bible.

 Thus according to Fr. Dussel Dorf Marx was passionately religious person and tried to relieve them of their poverty and weakness and gave them dignity they deserved. How do you define religiosity? Through mere rituals or by ones actions and deeds?  Is prevalent Christian theologies are more pro-poor than Marxist theories?, he asked. If Marxist theory is more pro poor than it is more liberative and pro-God than prevalent religion.

 So it is our understanding of religion and God which needs to be revised. Mere declaration of faith in God does not make you theist and His denial an atheist. As we have shown in one of our articles a Sufi considers service to people as true religion. Religion has many meanings and aspects. To most of the people in our degenerated semi-feudal and semi-capitalist society, mere performance of certain rituals and declarations are taken as indicators of faith in God.

 Like Bible Qur’an also says that we have decided to oblige the weak in earth and make them the leaders and inheritors of this earth. (28:5). I was studying Qur’an for many years but never chanced to see this verse in Qur’an until I read it in one of the speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini who was pro-poor referred to this verse appealing to the poor of the world to unite and stand up to USA and other pro-rich nations.

 As I was saying religion has several aspects and we should not judge it from one aspect only and we should not judge it from customs and traditions. It is very superficial way of judging religion which does not befit a Marxist or a profound scholar. Such understanding of religion is quite superficial. There are different ways of looking at religion. We normally mistake religion for cultural customs and traditions. These customs and traditions have their own autonomy. They persist for various reasons far beyond their utility and survive much beyond social structure which gave rise to them.

 Another level of understanding religion is identity it gives birth to. Every human being wants to belong to some organization or establishment of which religious one happens to be most effective. Religion provides primordial identity and primordial identities are emotionally very powerful than any acquired identity. Thus for many people religious beliefs are not as important as religious identity i.e. a sense of belonging to a religion. Beliefs become secondary.

 For some religion provides a sense of continuity of life beyond this life as it is difficult to believe for many that life will come to an end on this earth itself. Here also there are various ways of understanding what the continuity of life will mean. For some it means physical survival of body as such and for many it is soul alone which survives while the body shall perish. Heaven and hell is also understood in many ways.

 For yet others the concept of punishment and rewards forms important aspect of religion as without this concept the concept of good and evil becomes meaningless. In every religion there is rich corpus of writings on good and evil and plays very important role in shaping pattern of behaviour. Also the concepts of good and evil acquire meaning only if there is concept of continuity of life.

 Also, religion for many is an important source of values. Some like noted philosopher Whitehead maintains that God is nothing but ultimate value and measure of all values. God should not be conceived of in terms of physical existence. God is ultimate purity, ultimate justice, ultimate compassion, and ultimate wisdom and so on. That is why Allah is described as ultimate justice (‘Aadil), ultimate compassion (Rahman), ultimate wisdom (Hakim) etc.     

 These names of Allah represent values and a true worshipper of Allah, to make his/her worship meaningful has to abide by these values and anyone practicing these values will make this world itself a paradise. No religion can be confined only to rituals as we usually do but then it is no fault of religion; it is, if at all, fault of followers. A true follower of religion would lay more emphasis on values than rituals. Rituals, at best, are means to practise values.

  We also notice in history that every religion, howsoever radical, becomes huge establishment and people fight among themselves to control this establishment. This is what happened with Buddhism, Christianity and Islam which were pronouncedly pro-weaker section. The establishment became means to accumulate money and power and instead of liberating the poor it became means of exploitation.

 So it happened with political revolutions too be it a French or Russian or Chinese revolutions. There was great power struggle for controlling these powerful establishments and hence there were splits into sects and parties. Vested interests develop everywhere and religious establishments are no exceptions at all. Buddhism split into Mahayana and Hinayana, Christianity into Catholics and Protestants and many other sects before that in Europe in 17th century and Islam split into more than 100 sects within a century itself as listed by Baghdadi  in Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq (Difference between different sects,)

 A truly religious person strongly committed to values (rather than rituals) would oppose these establishments and would challenge their power. These establishments are complete negation of religious values and hijack true spirit of religion by putting whole emphasis on rituals. Thus we see that each religious establishments construct grand places of worship like stupas, churches and mosques even in the face of huge poverty and suffering of their followers.

 Buddha, Christ or Muhammad (PBUH) all of them challenged powerful religious and monetary establishments of their time as they had become extremely ritualistic and exploitative so that people could enjoy true liberation and get rid of suffering. It is these establishments which put loft of curbs and restrictions on people in the name of faith. In fact these curbs come not from faith but from culture, customs and traditions which become integral part of exploitative socio-cultural structures.

 In fact faith and freedom go together. A true believer cannot exist without freedom and fearlessness. Whatever edicts or Fatwas are issued by priests are by no means ‘divine’ but very much human reflecting their own socio-cultural situation. A true believer would exercise his/her own freedom in the light of the core values of his/her faith and take his/her own decision. Unfortunately for people of lesser faith or intellectual capacity these Fatwas become ‘divine’ and are followed mechanically.

We must also note that a religion gives a vision, a vision of future and also meaning and direction to believer’s life. It also enables the believers to reflect deeply on their inner life. As science enables us to explore external universe, religion enables us to explore inner universe. Life cannot become richer without inner exploration. We are too much focused on universe out there and have neglected the world within after industrial revolution.

 Perhaps it was necessary to correct earlier balance when we were too much focused on so-called inner world and neglected universe out there. In fact we have to maintain a delicate balance between the two and a true faith can enable us to do so. It is also important to note that dependence on priesthood distorts the very meaning of faith and a true faithful person not only studies religion he believes in, in depth and explores its various dimensions and takes responsibility for his actions.

One who depends on priesthood for understanding his/her own faith shows total ignorance of the faith and such a person cannot become real believer as he/she does whatever is told to her/him by the priesthood. Even if one is illiterate, she/he must learn and acquire knowledge in order to believe and take responsibility for all actions. That is precisely why acquisition of knowledge was made compulsory in Islam.

It is because we shirk our responsibility to learn that we depend on priests (Ulema) and if they misguide us due to their own ignorance or interests, we have no right to complain. Each person, each believer will be responsible for ones deeds and Qur’an makes it quite clear that no one else can take this responsibility and plea of ignorance will not be entertained.

 If poverty comes in the way of learning it is responsibility of society/government to make learning possible. Universal learning has to be responsibility of the government of the day. And in order to understand Allah’s creation one has to know natural sciences like physics, mathematics, chemistry etc. learning of these sciences also has to be facilitated. It is then and then alone that a believer can explore both knowledge out there and knowledge within.

It is not correct to argue that only knowledge of Deen (i.e. theology) is necessary. Theologians say so in order to emphasise their own importance. As far as Qur’an is concerned knowledge of Duniya (outer space) or everything about God’s creation is highly necessary. Without knowledge of physics, mathematics etc. one cannot understand Allah’s creation. Qur’an clearly invites all believers to reflect on His creation and hence ignorance of science would mean ignorance of Allah’s miracle that is our universe.

A believer also must take on the oppressing and exploitative forces as it prevents justice and liberation of the weaker sections. Any oppression of fellow human beings is an anti-religious act. The Prophet has said that anyone remaining silent when fellow human being is oppressed amounts to being with oppressor and one should not be seen with oppressor. And being with oppressor is an irreligious act. Thus to be religious is to be on the side of liberator, not with oppressor.

Many are tempted to use religion for political power.  Religion in the sense of theology and rituals must be kept away from politics. Or one should not use religious sentiments to appropriate political power as BJP extensively used Mandir-Masjid controversy for political purpose or Muslim leaders use religious issues to become political leaders.  It is extremely dangerous games and leads to extremism and religious fanaticism. It is highly irreligious act.

 Politicians should not be religious and religious leaders should not be politicians. Religious leaders should of course use religious values like justice, goodness, compassion, wisdom and truth as criteria for evaluating political leaders. Theological disputes should never become part of country’s politics which should be based only and only on improving life of ordinary people without touching their religious beliefs.

 If religion and religious beliefs are understood in this way religion can be a great boon for people but it can indeed be a curse as many rationalists maintain. Religion should be nothing but efforts for transcendence from good to better and better to best and from what is to what should be. Rest is empty shell.

Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

Source: Islam and Modern Age, March 2013